The SOTA Typography Award is presented each year to an outstanding member of the type community. John Downer sat down with us and recalled the production process and the presentation of the 2003 award.

“In early 2003, Richard Kegler and Tamye Riggs approached me, on behalf of SoTA, to ask if I would consider designing and producing the Typography Award. They told me that Professor Hermann Zapf would be the recipient. I asked if a gilt glass piece would be suitable, and SoTA confided that it was exactly what had been discussed. I promptly proposed a design, set in my own typefaces, and the layout was approved.

Next, we agreed on the dimensions of the glass, the colors, and the various grades of gold leaf to be used. In the following weeks, I screen printed the black background on the reverse side of the glass, but not just on one piece of glass: I did two. Experience had taught me not to rely on luck more than on safety, and because the very fragile award that was to be presented to Mr. Zapf might accidentally have gotten broken in transit from my studio in Iowa City to its destination in Chicago, I elected to make a duplicate as a back-up. Fortunately, both pieces stayed intact during their separate journeys. The first piece was carefully crated and shipped to the Newberry Library in Chicago, for safekeeping until the day of the presentation. Once I received word that it had arrived undamaged, I informed SoTA that the duplicate piece could be crated and shipped to the offices of Linotype GmbH, in Germany, where Mr. Zapf visits and works periodically.

Hermann Zapf & John Downer

In Chicago, the presentation honoring Mr. Zapf was well attended. After he had been given his award, as shown in the photo here, Mr. Zapf delivered a prepared talk about his career, while sipping red wine, which he declared was more to his liking than the local tap water from Lake Michigan. The formalities were followed by an autograph session, at which Mr. Zapf’s many admirers could have their Hermann Zapf keepsakes signed by the master himself.

Later that night, after Hermann and I had discussed the weight, size, and fragility of the award, he decided that it could be more safely transported and better cared for if it were to be donated to the Cary Collection of Hermann Zapf’s material at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Consequently, that is where the award presented in Chicago is housed today. The duplicate is in Germany, prominently displayed, and available for Mr. Zapf to see at the Linotype headquarters whenever he goes there.”